One week after getting the latest in a series of wins they felt they needed to keep their season from unraveling, the Washington Redskins will try to steal a victory they would love to have but know they have no right to expect.
It will be a matchup of division leaders when the Redskins face the Indianapolis Colts today at the RCA Dome, but these are teams in vastly different situations.
The Redskins (8-5) are in first place largely because of the forgiving nature of the NFC East, and they're battling for what would be the franchise's first playoff berth since the 1992 season. The Colts (11-2) already have clinched a spot in the playoffs and have a three-game lead in the rugged AFC East. They're on a nine-game winning streak, and the Redskins realize what they'll be up against this afternoon.
"They're probably the most solid team we've faced this year," quarterback Brad Johnson said.
The Colts are chasing the 12-1 Jacksonville Jaguars for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Even so, Redskins Coach Norv Turner calls the Colts the NFL's top team.
"I think this is the best team in the league right now," Turner said. "There are a couple other teams with similar records, but Indianapolis has that record and has played a demanding schedule."
The Colts are one win from equaling the greatest improvement by a team from one season to the next--nine victories--in NFL history. That is mostly because of an imposing offense led by second-year quarterback Peyton Manning, rookie running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison. But Turner says he is impressed by Indianapolis's defense and special teams as well.
"This is the best team we've faced this year, the most well-rounded team in all three areas," Turner said. "They're balanced on offense. They run the ball extremely well and throw the ball extremely well. Defensively, they give you a lot of problems with what they do. They complement their offense awfully well. Their kick-return game is probably the best we've faced."
The Redskins' best hope might be catching the Colts in an emotional lull.
"We don't have to worry about getting in the playoffs . . . [but] our goals are certainly a lot further than just making the playoffs," said Colts Coach Jim Mora, whose team can clinch the division title with one victory or a loss by Buffalo. "We can control winning the division championship. We can control getting a first-round bye, and having a playoff game at home."
The Colts have gone from being a 3-13 team last season to being a Super Bowl contender this year because Manning's learning curve has been short, and he has become one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks in only his second season; because James, a controversial choice on draft day, leads the AFC in rushing; and because Harrison has been virtually unstoppable, with 88 catches and 12 touchdowns.
"I feel I'm playing better," Manning said. "The defense is playing better. . . . Of course, Edgerrin has been a big help. [But] a lot of it is the guys just got tired of losing. I know last year, it was absolutely no fun for me. I learned a lot, but 3-13 is just no fun.
"I feel it made guys work harder in the offseason. . . . Guys came into training camp with a little sour taste in their mouths and a little hungrier to go out and be better this year. We didn't expect to be 11-2 at this point. But now that we are, we're just trying to take advantage of the situation."
Manning has an offensive line that has allowed only 13 sacks this season, and he has plenty of targets for his passing. James has 51 catches to go with 1,311 rushing yards. Rookie wide receiver Terrence Wilkins, an undrafted free agent from the University of Virginia, has thrived when defenses have paid too much attention to Harrison, and tight end Ken Dilger is a reliable pass catcher. It will be the toughest of tests for a Redskins defense that has played better in recent weeks, but still is ranked 28th in the league.
"We haven't arrived by any stretch of the imagination . . . [but] we're getting better," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "Guys have stuck together and have continued to work hard. If you do that, it pays off. It may take some time, but it pays off."
The Redskins, who lead the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants by a game in the NFC East, are coming off their most complete performance of the season in last Sunday's crucial 28-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Tailback Stephen Davis had a career-best day against Arizona, with 189 rushing yards on 37 carries. He is 24 yards ahead of James for the NFL rushing lead, and 18 yards shy of the single-season Redskins record of 1,353 set by Terry Allen in 1996.
The Redskins want to hand the ball to Davis often to keep the Colts' offense off the field. But they also will need some big plays from Johnson if they get into a scoring duel with another high-powered offense. Turner and Johnson stress that Davis's best running, even last Sunday, has come when the Redskins have been multidimensional on offense.
"That's when we're really tough," Johnson said.
The Redskins can only hope they handle playing in a dome better today than they did two weeks ago against Detroit. In a 33-17 loss to the Lions, they had 14 penalties, including four false starts and four holding calls on their offensive line, to go with four turnovers and five sacks at the noisy Silverdome.
"Every experience, you hope you grow from," Turner said. "We did not play well in that game. I don't think the crowd noise was the issue. I don't think the stadium was the issue. You give up big passes, you hold, you don't block very well, you make poor decisions with the ball--those are based on playing a good team. Those aren't based on where you're playing."
Redskins at Colts
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Site: RCA Dome, Indianapolis.
TV/Radio: WTTG-5; WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WPLC-FM-94.3, WKIK-FM-102.9, WAGE-1200, WNAV-1430, WFMD-930.
Line: Colts by 6A.
Redskins Game Day
Washington Redskins at Indianapolis Colts
When: Today, 1 p.m., RCA Dome. Line: Colts by 6A.
TV/Radio: WTTG-5; WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WPLC-FM-94.3,WKIK-FM-102.9, WAGE-1200, WNAV-1430, WFMD-930.
THE REDSKINS' KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Hope the Colts come up flat.
If the Colts show up with their `A' game, it would be tough for the Redskins to win. If the Colts are feeling a little too good about themselves and their three-game lead in the AFC East, the Redskins have a chance.
2. Run Stephen Davis.
Another heavy workload for the NFL's leading rusher would keep the dangerous Indianapolis offense off the field.
3. Eliminate the penalties and hit big plays in the passing game.
The Redskins may need to score big, so some long passes to complement Davis's running are a must. To do that, the Redskins can't repeat their mistake-filled performance at the Silverdome.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts are ranked 16th in the NFL in total defense and 20th against the pass. The Redskins are second in total offense. Opponents are averaging 218 passing yards per game against Indianapolis, but the Colts have 37 sacks.
The Redskins haven't scored more than 28 points in a game
since a 48-22 win over the Bears on Oct. 31.
vs. Colts RT
Badger makes his fourth start in six weeks for the injured Keith Sims. Johnson, with 7A sacks (1A behind DE Chad Bratzke for the team lead), gives the Colts an inside pass rusher.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James, WR Marvin Harrison and TE Ken Dilger are among the NFL's best at their positions. The only team to hold the Colts to fewer than 20 points this season is the Jets, who did it twice.
The Redskins are 28th in the league in total defense but are on the upswing, having limited opponents to 20.2 points and 260.2 yards over a five-game span.
vs. Colts TE
Shade is best at stuffing the run, not covering pass-catching tight ends, and Dilger gives Manning another option if the Redskins focus on Harrison and fellow
WR Terrence Wilkins.
The Colts' Terrence Wilkins has two TDs on returns this season, one on a punt and one on a kickoff. But the Colts' punt-coverage unit has struggled mightily. Opponents are averaging 17.7 yards per punt return, and P Hunter Smith's net average is only 29.2 yards. He also has had two punts blocked. Brian Mitchell's longest punt return for the Redskins this season is 33 yards.
-- Compiled by Mark Maske